We talked to over 15 students and 12 administrators about health at Bowdoin. Many of our peers have found frustration in the complexity and obscurity of who has not only the power, but also the judgment to make these decisions. Moreover, how does Bowdoin support a student whose health concerns cannot necessarily be solved with a medical leave?
Austin Goldsmith ’18 was two weeks into her first year at Bowdoin when she got her first concussion during a volleyball game. Her struggle to make it to classes led to several meetings with former Dean of First Year Students Janet Lohmann, who suggested Goldsmith take a medical leave—an option in which Goldsmith was not interested.
“[Does] a strong word from Lohmann make [my leave] involuntary? Does that mean it’s not my decision? ... What power or autonomy do I have?” said Goldsmith in a phone interview with the Orient. “As much as the [Bowdoin Student] Handbook gives you information, it’s so unclear and it’s so vague.”
According to Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster, medical leave cases are considered on a case-by-case basis. However, the deans have displayed a pattern of strongly recommending a voluntary medical leave to students.
Approximately 10 to 20 students are on voluntary medical leave each semester, according to Kim Pacelli, the senior associate dean of student affairs. However, many students feel pressured by the deans’ recommendations and question whether these leaves are elective in practice or if the College is making the decision for them.
Read stories of eight students' experiences with medical leave and mental health at Bowdoin.
The Handbook states students may “request a voluntary medical leave in the event that the student believes that physical and/or mental health concerns are significantly interfering with the ability to succeed at Bowdoin [or to recover].”
Only if a student is presenting a “significant threat” to themselves or others while on campus, the deans, in consultation with the health care provider, may force a student to go home. The Handbook classifies this as an involuntary medical leave. According to Pacelli, no students are on involuntary medical leave this semester. These leaves, Pacelli noted, are “pretty rare.”
In the case of voluntary medical leaves, occasionally a student may enter the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs knowing he or she would like to request a leave. However, some students question whether a leave will benefit their health, resist postponing their graduation date or feel hesitant to go through the process of readmission upon return. Many times, students feel the conversation with their dean is what ultimately guides their decision.
Former Dean of First Year Students Janet Lohmann claimed to be “a fan of the leave.”
“My goal is that I want students to be successful at Bowdoin,” said Lohmann. “If I feel that students are limping along and compromising their success merely for the sake of being here, then really I want [the student] to be able to perform at the level [the student is] capable of.”
The administrators who spoke with the Orient on this subject shared this sentiment.
Many students who spoke with the Orient felt this pressure from their deans as well.
“[The deans are] very pushy. They’re like ‘this is what we want—we want you to do well. Bowdoin is four years of your life and we want you to get the best time with it, not struggling to get through it, for reasons beyond your control,’” Goldsmith said. “That was the biggest message I got. We want you to have the best experience possible.”
While unsure how her concussion would progress, Goldsmith knew she would be happier to remain at school, rather than leave for the year and re-matriculate the following fall, as is asked of first years taking a medical leave their fall semester.
“[Lohmann] could have been right… She was coming from ‘oh we’ve seen this before and we’ve seen this go both ways.’ I’m sure she’s seen a lot of more people do poorly than do well,” continued Goldsmith. “[But] she didn’t know me the way that I knew me.”
Goldsmith did not take a leave that fall semester.
“CAN THEY MAKE ME LEAVE?”
A conversation between the student and his or her dean often plays the biggest role in influencing the student’s decision to take a leave.
Prior to this type of conversation, Pacelli noted that she looks at the student’s academic performance—which includes class attendance (a red flag when a student misses three weeks of classes), completion of work and any additional comments from faculty. She also looks at his or her conduct—whether the student has been in any disciplinary trouble with the College.
However, considering the case-by-case nature of each student’s mental or physical health problems, the dean’s advisal “should have the recommendation of the [medical] provider,” according to Pacelli. “They always do.”
A Bowdoin student’s medical provider includes Bowdoin Counseling, the Bowdoin Health Center or a medical professional unaffiliated with the College.
“I think sometimes our office gets a bad rap of—and an unfair one—that we’re looking to send everybody on med leave all the time. I don’t think that’s accurate,” Pacelli said.
Though the dean’s office may rely on a health care provider for this recommendation, the student’s health information is only shared with the student’s permission under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In the case of a concussion, the Health Center informs the student’s dean of how many days of brain rest the student requires so that the deans may share that information with the student’s professors.
Counseling or the Health Center can share a student’s health information with the student’s dean or parents only in the cases deemed “a significant threat to the health or safety of a student or other individuals.” Such a threat, as outlined in the Handbook, would warrant an involuntary medical leave.
Many students under voluntary medical leaves, however, still feel confused as to whether the decision is their own.
“I really felt a lot of pressure from the administration. I remember scanning the Handbook with my dad, being like can they make me leave?” Goldsmith said.
Megan Retana ’19, who is currently on a medical leave, echoed Goldsmith.
“There was initially a lack of clarity in what they could offer me, what additional help they could give me and what the policies were,” said Retana in a phone interview with the Orient.
Following a hospitalization for mental health reasons in the spring of her first year, Retana agreed to take off the rest of the semester and this current fall semester per the evaluation of the Counseling Center and her dean. The final decision was negotiated in a phone call in June between Retana’s mother and Assistant Dean of First Year Students Khoa Khuong, according to Retana.
“My mom had been advocating for me to go back in the fall because we both thought I could do it and then they [said] no,” said Retana. “Counseling was concerned about my well-being while I had a different opinion on what that was or what would help me.”
While both Retana and her mother wanted her to return in the fall, Retana agreed to take the fall semester off because the deans told her they believed this was the only way Bowdoin’s Readmission Committee would allow her to come back to campus.
The readmission process requires a short application, in which the student must prove their readiness to re-enter life at the College. This requires documentation from the student’s health care provider. The committee—comprised of members of the dean’s office, Residential Life and Admissions and advised by the directors of Counseling and the Health Center—then determines whether the student is healthy enough to come back to campus.
According to Retana, the decision to leave felt involuntary though it is recorded as voluntary because she did, under this pressure, consent to the leave.
“[The problem] was more in terms of lack of transparency, or clarity, or organization on their part because...they didn’t [initially] tell me [in the spring] that I had to take [the fall] semester off,” Retana said. “Had they offered those things in the first place, I wouldn’t have been upset.”
She said although she ultimately appreciated her time off, she wished the process was clearer.
“I wanted to make my own decisions but at the same time I’m grateful to the school for stepping in because I’m so grateful for this semester off,” Retana said. “But I do wish there had been more consistency throughout the process.”
“EDUCATIONAL NOT THERAPEUTIC COMMUNITY”
The College views its role of “stepping in” as necessary in preventing a student’s health from impeding on the rest of his or her life at Bowdoin.
“Bowdoin is an educational community, not a therapeutic community,” said Foster. “So if somebody really needs the time to regain their health ... it’s oftentimes better to seek the care that you need in order to fully regain your health so you can be here and be successful.”
Director of Counseling Services Bernie Hershberger, whose office is independent of the dean’s, said it does not push students to leave against their will.
“If it’s better for the student to stay on campus then that’s going to be the first priority and that’s what we’re going to push for. It’s not that often that a student would want to go, and so we’re not going to push that unless it aligns with their deepest desire,” he said.
Uma Blanchard ’17, who has struggled with a concussion since the end of her sophomore year, was skeptical of Counseling’s relationship with the dean’s office because she had heard rumors that the two offices communicate with each other about students often.
“I began to see a counselor off campus—I felt safer seeing someone who wasn’t connected to the dean’s office and wasn’t feeding me the Bowdoin line, which I feel is pretty much always the same which is ‘you should go home’,” said Blanchard.
Many students said it was difficult to fight the College’s push to leave even when their own medical providers felt that going home was not the best solution.
Following a conversation with her first-year dean, Jacqueline Colao ’17 decided to take a gap year a day and half into her pre-orientation trip because of a persistent concussion she sustained in high school. Upon returning to campus and still feeling the effects of her concussion, Colao chose not to take any medical leaves. Instead, beginning her sophomore year, she decided on a reduced course load for four semesters.
“[Bowdoin is] very good about letting people take time off, but that’s the go-to solution,” said Colao.
“My neurologist [said] that it was better for me for my healing process to be at school taking two courses than it would be for me to take time off because you still need your brain to be working in a certain capacity. You can’t just sit around, that’s not good either,” Colao noted.
Getting approved to take two classes—which makes a student part-time—is not easy. However, students may petition the Recording Committee for a reduced course load. The student must submit a one-page statement—as well as supporting documentation from a medical professional, faculty member or Director of Accommodations Lisa Peterson—about why he or she requires this alteration.
The Recording Committee is made up of several professors and two students. Because there are no health professionals on it, the committee relies on a rating system from the Health Center to determine the severity of a student’s medical condition.
Professor of Government Allen Springer, who is the Chair of the Recording Committee for this academic year, explained, “The Health Center will provide a rating for people to tell us that a. There is a concern and b. How confident they are it’s a serious concern. Quite honestly we take those ratings very seriously and we’re not in a position to second-guess medical professionals about whether or not medical factors should be taken into account in making a decision.”
This rating is the only metric considered by the Recording Committee, and, in addition to reports from the Health Center, takes into account doctor’s notes from outside practitioners.
Blanchard’s petition to take two classes her junior spring—which was substantiated by letters from her counselor and her parents indicating Blanchard’s home doctors’ recommendation that she remain at school and take a reduced course load—was denied. The committee’s decisions are final and do not include any face-to-face interaction between the student and the committee.
“I was a little unclear why the Recording Committee ... was able to make what was a medical decision for me. It would not have been good for me to go home because I would not have been able to use my brain,” said Blanchard.
On the other hand, Colao’s request to take two classes—supported by letters from her neurologist, Hershberger and her dean—was accepted. However, still struggling with her concussion sophomore spring, Colao did not want to go through the process of petitioning again because her concussion made the process particularly exhausting for her.
Additionally, Colao felt the committee would not be amenable to recurring requests.
“I asked multiple times why you have to petition the Recording Committee to only take two classes,” Colao said. “I was never given a clear answer on that, I was just told that’s not a thing that Bowdoin does.”
Lohmann confirmed that Bowdoin does not allow students to continually take only two courses. While students may successfully petition to take two classes, this accommodation is restricted to temporary medical issues with a clearly defined recovery period.
“We don’t really do half-time status,” Lohmann said. “We’re a residential liberal arts college. We expect students to be fully engaged in living in the college.”
Pacelli shares this position. “This is supposed to be a full-time experience and a full course load is three or more credits,” she said. “If all you can do is two credits then maybe it’s better to think about med leave.”
Pacelli said that finances do not play a role in the Recording Committee’s decision of whether to allow a student to take two courses.
Further, taking two classes does not reduce the cost of tuition aid. However, if a student takes a medical leave in the middle of a semester, he or she is not reimbursed after the fifth week of school. The Student Aid Office only covers eight semesters of aid, though a student may appeal for a ninth semester of aid with the support of the Office of Student Affairs. Pacelli noted that “[the deans] can and do step up.”
Colao’s recovery period continued for the next three semesters; she took three classes during each one. Her sophomore spring proved to be especially demanding as she struggled to balance her academics with her recovery.
“The only way I was able to stay here [my sophomore spring] and take three classes was I was able to only do school and nothing else,” Colao said. “So I ate meals by myself because talking to people at meals would bring up my symptoms ... I would nap every day for a couple hours. I never went out. I barely talked to people. Literally all I did was schoolwork.”
“I think it would be helpful to delve into more solutions about how we can get people to stay at Bowdoin and be successful while still dealing with whatever issue that caused them to think about taking time off,” Colao said.
Blanchard echoed this sentiment.
“I felt very strongly last semester that there is this notion that if you’re not totally healthy then you shouldn’t be here,” Blanchard said. “For the first time I thought ‘wow Bowdoin doesn’t want me to be here right now, because I am not perfect.’ ... I think that’s definitely a common experience."